Carell, Gosling a fine, funny pairing in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

Cal (Steve Carell) gets his groove back in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”

“Bad Santa” fans, prepare to meet a kinder, gentler Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. Indeed, “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is far removed from the booze-soaked, potty-mouthed desperation of “Bad Santa” (Ficarra and Requa penned the script) or the all-out insanity of “I Love You Phillip Morris.” Maybe one too many ass jokes prompted the duo to venture into calmer waters with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.,” a romantic comedy with strong performances and several tongue-in-cheek jabs at rom-com gimmicks.

Casting Steve Carell as Cal Weaver, a nice-but-oft-befuddled 40ish father and husband, was the first smart move (if not a stroke of genius, because who could play Joe Husband better than Carell?). He’s got the best face in the business for communicating bemusement and heartbreak, and rare is the actor who can locate humor in a moment of complete emotional devastation. For Cal, that moment is the dinner where his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) announces she’s cheated on Cal and wants a divorce. It’s one of those inherently human situations where the shock is too great to predict the emotional fallout. Cal’s so dumbfounded he can’t speak, leading him to roll out of a moving car to avoid any more of Emily’s confessions. Within a few days he’s moved into a grim little apartment and parked himself at a chi-chi local bar, yammering drunkenly about his troubles (Carell’s “I’m a cuckold” speech is hysterical) to anyone within earshot. Suave ladies’ man Jacob (Ryan Gosling, who proves adept at comedy) takes pity on this unfortunately dressed soul and offers him lessons on how to rediscover his masculinity (step one: ditch the sneaks-and-khakis getup).

 
Jacob and Cal’s unlikely friendship is a high point of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” because it gives Carell and Gosling, both choice character actors, ample opportunities to play off each other’s quite different comedic styles. Carell is never better than when he’s playing a character who’s miles outside of his comfort zone (see “Date Night” or “Dan in Real Life”), and Cal Weaver is never less comfortable than when he’s trying to pick up women (Marisa Tomei has a fun cameo as Cal’s first post-breakup “score”). On the other end of the spectrum is Gosling, who tends to pick dramatic roles and do amazing things with them. His comedy comes from a place of self-confidence and trends toward random observational humor, such as his sheepish admission to new love Hannah (Emma Stone, delightful) that he stole his big “close-the-deal” move straight from “Dirty Dancing” (he uses the Bill Medley/Jennifer Warnes song and everything). That, really, is the appeal of Carell and Gosling as pals: They’re so dissimilar you’d never match them up as a funny guy pair, but together they’re terrific.
 
Not all the pairings in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” work quite so well, though. The subplot involving Cal’s son Robbie (Jonah Bob) and his infatuation with babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton) is sweet but not particularly interesting, especially considering that Jessica has a raging crush on Cal. (The whole bit with her snapping nude photos to prove to him she’s not a kid is just awkward.) Kevin Bacon doesn’t generate much heat with Moore as David Lindhagen, the man who effectively broke up Emily and Cal’s marriage. Moore and Carell do have the sometimes weary chemistry of a long-married couple (their scene outside Robbie’s parent-teacher conference is wrenching). Still, even they can’t quite hold a candle to Stone and Gosling, whose budding relationship essentially runs away with “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” These two are dynamite together, and they develop a believable, tentative first-love kind of intimacy that’s a nice juxtaposition to Emily and Cal’s well-worn but deep affection for one another. Even when Dan Fogelman’s script takes a few missteps (like the Big Speech Ending), it’s these two relationships — one winding down, the other gearing up — that make “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” a cut above most romantic comedies. 
 
Grade: B+

Review: “The Kids Are All Right” (2010)

There are plenty of films about marriage, but the characters in them never quite seem to grasp what “lifetime commitment” means.  Jules (Julianne Moore) does. She gives a speech late in “The Kids Are All Right” that doesn’t feel the least bit calculated. It has the profane sting of actual truth. “Marriage is hard … just two people slogging through the shit, year after year, getting older, changing. It’s a fucking marathon, okay?” Jules tells her kids, Laser (Josh Hutcherson) and Joni (Mia Wasikowska). “So sometimes, you know, you’re together for so long, that you just … you stop seeing the other person.” While Jules’ wife Nic (Annette Bening) listens silently, her eyes reflect understanding. She’s been in that muck and tracked it on the rug. This is just the first time anyone’s been brave enough to point out the footprints.

Frank speeches like these are rare in films involving married couples — because who wants to acknowledge the reality that “for better or for worse” actually means “for better or for worse”? Now there’s a dreadful thought to any fan of traditional romantic comedies. Director Lisa Cholodenko is not one such fan. She tackles the subjects of marriage, commitment and family head-on, peppering in enough humor in the script that “The Kids Are All Right” is far from depressing. Cholodenko presents the film as an earnest, funny portrait of modern marriage. Jules and Nic have been together for more than a decade, raising their daughter and son. Nic is a doctor with a sharply critical eye that finds fault even in the gay male porno she uses to get turned on. Jules, though, is more of a wanderer who hasn’t yet stumbled into a profitable career. This is a scab Jules has spent her entire marriage picking. Each mom gave birth to one of the kids using the same anonymous sperm donor. Laser, curious about the man’s identity, convinces Joni, who’s 18, to call the sperm bank. Into their uneventful family life saunters Paul (who else but Mark Ruffalo?), an almost catatonically mellow restauraunt owner. He charms the kids, even hires Jules to landscape his yard, but Nic’s good graces aren’t for sale. She resents his presence even when she pretends she doesn’t. She might register on an uneasy level that Paul and Jules have a lot in common. She’s shocked and not shocked when she finds proof Paul and Jules are sleeping together. 

Because “The Kids Are All Right” is not a film of bloated speeches, even the damage caused by this affair is underplayed. Nic’s epiphany happens at a meal at Paul’s house in a dinner scene nearly as wrenching as Anamaria Marinca’s in “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Nic, who’s made a show of wanting to welcome Paul into their lives, yammers on incessantly, manifesting interest and politeness at every turn. She even croons most of a Joni Mitchell song while Laser and Joni look on, bewildered. Moore’s growing discomfort at her partner’s behavior is spot on. But the entire scene is Bening’s showcase, and she handles the pressure so marvelously it’s not hard to see that Best Actress Oscar in her hands. The range of emotions she covers is stunning, and she does it all without a sound. She retreats deep inside herself in that way humans do when faced with a crushing and unfaceable truth. What pain is there is too great to absorb in front of company, her children, so it floats around her in a haze. She can’t let it settle on her skin yet. It’s a magnificent combination of strong direction and acting that likely will win Bening that Best Actress Oscar.

Moore provides Bening some competition with Jules, who has a little-girl-lost quality to her. Moore is at her best playing wounded, rudderless women. Jules loves her wife and her kids, but her feelings of failure as a provider cloud her judgment. She projects them onto Nic, interpreting her comments as digs. Jules’ lack of identity leads her to make idiotic, rash choices and hurt the people she loves. This is what makes us human, and Cholodenko’s treatment of it is what makes “The Kids Are All Right” one of the best films of 2010.

Grade: A

No. 43: “Boogie Nights” (1997)

“You know, I’m gonna be a great big, bright shining star.” ~~Dirk Diggler

Watch enough Paul Thomas Anderson films — which won’t take a full day, considering he’s only made five major motion pictures — and a trademark starts to emerge. It’s not the long shots (he’s wonderful with those) or the use of the iris in/out technique (that too). What strikes us, and quite forcefully, is Anderson’s repeated focus on warped, unconventional family dynamics. “Punch Drunk Love” had Barry and his seven wretched sisters; “Magnolia,” the twin stories of Jimmy Gator and Earl Partridge, who slowly poisoned their marriages, their children and themselves. “Boogie Nights” may beat them both, though, in terms of questionable family relationships for its emphasis on a clan of pornographers — actors, directors, producers — who cling to each other out of emotional necessity. Their real families won’t have them; no one else will, either, and so they love the ones they’re with.

This unorthodox sense of togetherness smudges the line between parental love and sexual love, especially in the case of porn stars Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) and Amber Waves (Julianne Moore). Freud could have a field day with the peculiar yet loving relationship these two people have. Unable to see her son, Amber has a hole in her heart she needs to fill with something. Cocaine passes the time, but she needs to be needed. And Dirk, a clueless kid determined to escape his own abusive mother, needs a surrogate.These two are a match made in heaven and also hell — they nurture each other, they fill gaps, but they also have a codependent relationship that’s headed nowhere good. More stable is Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds, displaying actual depth and empathy), the porn director with a conscience who discovers Dirk bussing tables at a nightclub. “I got a feeling that behind those jeans is something wonderful just waiting to get out,” Jack observes, and he’s not being crude. Jack Horner is a man with an eye for untapped potential. He’s also a man who wants to help a struggling, uncertain high school dropout make something of himself. He adopts a fatherly attitude toward Dirk, who finds makeshift siblings in fellow actors Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly, all childlike innocence) and Rollergirl (Heather Graham).

Remaining characters trickle in and out much like kooky relatives at a family reunion: Maurice Rodriguez (Luis Guzmán), a nightclub owner/Don Juan in his own mind; Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), Jack’s financial backer with a disturbing, illegal secret; and gay boom operator Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman, agonizingly awkward), besotted with Dirk. There’s assistant director Little Bill (William H. Macy, brilliant as usual), whose reaction to his porn star wife’s (Nina Hartley) infidelity is a game-changer in “Boogie Nights.” Also intriguing is Buck Swope (Don Cheadle), who wants to give up his unfulfilling life of sex on camera, meet his soulmate and open a discount electronics store. Little details like that are the mark of a gifted filmmaker. And one thing Anderson, for all his skills behind the camera, never skimps on is the depth of his characters. He can draw impressive performances from actors — Graham, Reynolds and pre-“Departed” Wahlberg — not known for giving them. Even the characters we get fleeting glimpses of, like Thomas Jane’s arrogant Todd, Philip Baker Hall’s visionless financier Floyd or Alfred Molina’s whacked-out drug dealer, leave indelible impressions. Anderson writes “Boogie Nights” so that every person is concealing a story, and we get just enough of a taste of those stories to want more. Anderson backlights the characters’ tensions with his single takes (he holds when other directors would cave) and exquisite soundtrack choices, proving himself as good at illustrating eras and emotions with songs as Scorsese.

In the long list of thingsAnderson does well, there’s something else to tick off: merging multiple storylines into a satisfying conclusion. His endings are poetry, and the final minutes of “Boogie Nights” — shocking for MPAA in the ’90s, they prompted Reynolds to fire his agent and punch Anderson on set — is no exception. Anderson feels for his characters, and he gives them the kind of bittersweet adieus that sit with us indefinitely. It’s not what we expect, but it’s exactly what we need.

No. 42: “Magnolia” (1999)

“I’ll tell you everything, and you tell me everything, and maybe we can get through all the piss and shit and lies that kill other people.”
~~Claudia Wilson Gator

Epic in length, ambition and raw acting talent, “Magnolia” is not an easy film to break down. This motion picture defies quick summary, and that’s not because of a convoluted plot or characters with mystifying or unknowable motivations. Stripped of the gut-churning, elegaic soundtrack (including Aimee Mann’s devastating, Oscar-nominated “Save Me”), “Magnolia” is film about the most mundane of things: people interacting with other people. Under Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction, though, something so ordinary becomes extraordinary. Where other directors might see banality, he sees a life-affirming symphony of emotion.

In making “Magnolia,” Anderson had a rare opportunity for creative control. He decided to seize that opportunity — a wise move considering that a motion picture this theatrical about plain people might not have gotten made any other way. Making something like “Magnolia” involves a gigantic leap of faith that places an equally gigantic amount of trust in viewers. Could they see beauty in two lonely ne’er-do-wells (John C. Reilly, Melora Walters) bonding over a terrible cup of coffee? Or be moved to tears by the plight of a loser (William H. Macy) who lives so deep in the past he can’t see what’s ahead of him? It’s a risk few directors would take; that’s not Anderon’s way, however, and thank God for that. Anyone with a touch of patience and a willingness to accept coincidences will find much to love about “Magnolia,” which at its core is a meditation on the emotions we feel every day, many times a day: anger, sadness, pain, hope, lust, love, betrayal, jealousy and so much more. It is one of the best films ever made about the human condition.

One of the elements to love about “Magnolia” — not shocking given Anderson’s ability to assemble winning ensemble casts — is the performances. Anderson does not write any part, down to a dying man’s nurse, as one-dimensional. There are unfathomable depths to every character, and every actor finds those depths. Because “Magnolia” relies on the everyone-is-connected-somehow theme, there are no true main characters and no stories that preside over all others. Dying patriarchs Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) and Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall), however, do stand at the middle. Earl pleads with his caretaker Phil (Hoffman) to find Frank (Tom Cruise, who hits a career high), the son Earl abandoned years ago. Frank, a manipulative slimeball who’s made a career of selling his womanizing strategies to regular guys, wants nothing to do with Earl. He also wants nothing to do with Earl’s trophy wife Linda (a wrenching Julianne Moore), who sublimates her guilt with any sedative she can find. Jimmy’s life is approaching its expiration date, and he cannot reconcile with his daughter Claudia (Melora Walters), a cokehead. An inept, kind-hearted cop named Jim (John C. Reilly, a sweetly floundering Everyman) falls for Claudia when her neighbors file a noise complaint against her. Claudia’s father is on the verge of losing the thing that means most to him in the world: his successful game show “What Do Kids Know?” One of the young stars is Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman), whose father is pushing the boy right up to the breaking point. Donnie Smith (Macy in top comic-tragic form), former child star of the show, watches Stanley with jealous, knowing eyes. Donnie understands the dangers of peaking so young, and his anguish is plaintive: “I do have love to give. I just don’t know where to put it.”

Macy touches on one of the more important prevailing themes — and a universal human problem — in “Magnolia” with these two sentences of dialogue. These people, all bumbling and stumbling through life, have emotions too big to stuff down. Mann’s aching, weary voice perfectly underscores this plight, and Anderson’s tracking shot in the quiz show sequence builds the tension to uncomfortable levels. Like the characters in “Magnolia,” we pray for sweet release. When release comes, we are not prepared and we do not understand. Maybe we don’t need to. Maybe this, Stanley would say, is something that happens.

Review: “A Single Man” (2009)

“Looking in the mirror staring back at me isn’t so much a face as the expression of a predicament,” George Falconer (Colin Firth) calmly notes, gazing at his reflection after he’s put on the crisp suit, hair and face he wears for the world outside his Los Angeles home. His manner and tone are disconcerting, for the predicament he’s in is not one simply solved. The sudden death of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode, radiating warmth in his few scenes), in a car accident has damaged George in ways that cannot be mended. Waking up is physically painful. Grief has taken him to a place that he cannot come back from and doesn’t want to.

George Falconer, with his unwrinkled shirts and mute anguish, would present a challenge to any actor. Colin Firth is not “any actor.” From the uptight Mark Darcy to the repressed Adrian LeDuc, Firth’s career has been defined by characters who operate under a “better in than out” philosophy: They believe emotions to be unnecessary inconveniences to others. George Falconer puts them all to shame; it is the role of a lifetime for Firth, a challenge that demands control and also sadness and even humor. Firth not only rises to the occasion but surpasses it, shaping George into a man whose life force drained out the moment he got the call his soulmate was dead. In Firth we see a man looking at the world, as singer/songwriter Mike Doughty wrote, from the bottom of a well. Life has become small, closed-in, while the world above is expansive and out of reach and also bright, so bright he wants to shut his eyes to it.

George does indeed, at the beginning of Tom Ford’s overly stylized adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel, decide to shut out the world. Unable to grieve openly for Jim — this is the ’60s, not a time of free expression for gays, lesbians and transgendered people — he intends to kill himself. The day we meet him is to be the last day of his life. He’s purchased bullets for his gun, removed everything from his safe deposit box, picked out his suit, laid all his effects end to end on the kitchen table. In short, he has planned everything to the last detail (this leads to an unexpectedly funny sequence involving Firth testing a sleeping bag as an effective way to shoot himself without spattering the walls with blood). A few things happen that threaten to interrupt his plan: a drunken dalliance with former lover Charley (Julianne Moore, overwrought and underwhelming), a fellow Brit who marinates herself in gin to relive her younger days; a liquor store encounter with Carlos (Jon Kortajarena), a chiseled Spaniard hustler; and several poignant moments with Kenny (Nicholas Hoult), one of George’s sharper university students who senses his professor’s need for companionship.

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that first-time director Ford puts food on the table as a fashion designer, since “A Single Man” is awash with “style.” This is both a compliment and a criticism because Ford has a tendency to stylize many scenes within an inch of their lives. Ford has a sharp eye for color (the contrast between  George’s old, happy life vs. his stifling new one is gorgeous), but everyone in this world is a little too attractive, a little too perfectly coiffed and attired. There are a few too many close-up shots of eyes and eyebrows meant, no doubt, to be “arty.” Ford seems unwilling or unable to embrace any kind of imperfection. So Ford’s vision sometimes seems like art for art’s sake, a perfectly coordinated string of sets and costumes without much genuine feeling to ground them. The director has made it difficult for his actors to stand out.

Yet Firth manages to cut through all this calculated beauty with his aching performance, undoubtedly the best he’s ever given and one of the great cinematic performances period. Firth gives soul and heartbreaking depth to a man, played by anyone else, that we might dismiss as haughty, standoffish and superficial. More than that, he gives a bone-weary face to the grimmer aspects of universal human experience — death, grief — that won’t soon fade from memory.

Grade: B+

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “The Big Lebowski” (1998); dir. by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

The moment: My glasses have disappeared.

The correlation: I loved those glasses. They really tied my face together.

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